The Fairground Enthusiast Movement in the UK

Enthusiast Group, Hartlebury Steam Rally, 1953The period immediately following the Second World War saw big changes on the fairground scene in the UK. Showmen saw little financial sense in adhering to notions of respecting historical integrity with both the physical make up of their fairgrounds and the supporting creation of atmosphere through theming. The showman needed to engage the public and entice the riders on to the fairground - this was achieved through interlocking with popular culture by bringing in faster and more thrilling rides, adding the spice of rock'n'roll, and decorating the rides with artwork suitable for the public's engagement with the design and imagery of the time.

As a result of the natural drive for progression four key changes were taking place:

• Steam rides such as the Scenic were on the decline to be replaced by Arks and Waltzers, and the eventual    procession of novelty rides that mapped out the second half of the century
• Transportation of rides was switching from showmen's steam engines to petrol and diesel powered lorries, with many ex-WD vehicles called in to showland service
• Panatrope systems became more popular with records replacing organ music, resulting in the large scale abandonment of centre-piece organs
• Decoration of rides moved to the next stage to reflect fast and futuristic icons combined with elements from graphic design and packing, carving was overshadowed by painted work

As with all industries geared towards a consumer market, progress was welcomed. The fairground world was no different, and showmen embraced modern rides and methods as this is what the public showed most enthusiasm towards. The rationale for the fair - an arena of excitement where one could temporarily suspend disbelief - necessitated such an embrace of modernity.

These pronounced, radical changes were spotted by some of the fairground 'fans' of the time. These individuals were not yet organised beyond the simple purpose of meeting and enjoying fairgrounds, but all shared common ground in their appreciation of the wonder of the fairground. They met at the larger fairgrounds and shared stories and photographs. Views were expressed and exchanged in the columns of the World's Fair newspaper, with some debates smouldering over the course of a year or more.

The preservation movement started in the 1940s as a result of the changes on the fairground. This saw an initiative to preserve the rapidly changing elements of the fairground by withdrawing engines, organs and items from the fairground scene and resurrecting them as preservation projects in the emerging rally scene. Alongside this preservation scene we also saw the formation of the Friendship Circle of Showland Fans (FCSF) who commenced their 'Merry-Go-round' bulletin in March 1941. The first copy of the bulletin, a modest 8 page endeavour, looks at the formation of the FCSF with the following editorial by Father Greville:

"I think we can take Easter Monday, March 25 (1940) as the actual commencement of the FCSF. On that day, four potential members journeyed up to London and after joining me in paying visits to several Bank Holiday Fairs - came on to my house for a formal meeting. Unfortunately one of the party had to leave us to catch his train for far away Devon (Mr T.H. Angel), but the other three, Messrs T. Pearce (Cambridge), W.G. Bullock (Bristol) and Mr Fred Barker (Welwyn) signed their enrolment forms and paid their subscriptions"

The aforementioned meeting was reported in the World's Fair and through the year a sizeable membership was accrued. Early members included Rowland Scott, Colin Pass, Jack Wilkinson, Philip Bradley and Frank Buckley, alongside a large contingent of showmen who formed a committee of vice-presidents.

The outlook of the FCSF was very much of the 'memory lane' variety, with an understandable imperative to document the soon-to-be-extinct details of engines and organs in showland service. It is somewhat ironic that the 'modern' changes of the time were seldom recorded and now, 70 years later, it is these contemporaneous (and certainly frenetic) issues that are almost impossible to fathom and untangle. At the same time these 'memory lanes' were often patrolled by self-appointed experts who liked to hold sway on all matters to the point that something became 'fact' if it was spoken with the right amount of authority by the right person. The difficulty in affording travel to the smaller, more obscure tobers, coupled with the minimal uptake of amateur photography (cameras and associated film ephemera were very expensive and unreliable), meant that what became established was not only assumed to be wholly true but also wholly representative of the fairground totality. Photographs were not taken but generally sold and exchanged, stemming from regular reproducers like William Keating and Jack Mellor. Further derivatives appeared and often contradicting information accompanied the same image.

The FCSF thrived through the 1940s and published the Merry-Go-Round at a rate of about 10 issues per year. The theme of 'looking back' remained constant, and recycling of articles was already occurring. At the end of the decade the FCSF descended into some controversy and a separate organisation was formed - the British Fairground Society (BFS). The BFS published a similar journal entitled 'The Tober'. The following decade, the 1950s, saw some rivalry between these two organisations with regular heated discussions alongside some of the landmark engines at the big fairs. The FCSF had survived its controversy and, much to the efforts of Bill Wilkins of Tewkesbury and Stuart Johnstone, kept up a regular publishing regime.

By the end of the 1950s the BFS had ceased publishing and the FCSF publications were dwindling in useful content. The nostalgia-facing outlook was starting to dry up and repeat articles from earlier and out-of-print editions, and the society had still not grasped any kind of sense of imperative for an engagement with the contemporary fairground. In fact, an opposite view often thrived, with views and grumbles aired about the horror of the modern fair regularly in the column. Meanwhile specialist interest in fairground organs had migrated to the Fairground Organ Preservation Society (FOPS) founded in 1957, and traction engines to the Leeds and District Traction Engine Club who, by forming in 1963, absorbed the remains of the BFS. The FOPS hit the ground running with its 'Key Frame' publication and continues with some strength to this day.

What of the modern day movements? The Fairground Society formed in 1962 and its initial meeting is at Leicester early in February. Called by steam enthusiast Bob Neal it seemed to reflect the poor climate of fairground enthusiasm at the start of the 1960s, illustrated by a sequence of letters in the World's Fair newspaper throughout the early part of 1962. It is suggested that the diversification in the number of societies reflected not necessarily strength but more so disagreement and discontent with strong figures in existing organisations. The FCSF had in part survived its crisis but in doing that had hardened around a small core of individuals. The organisation had dropped away although the publication of Merry-Go-Round continued until 1967. Problems in the FCSF, and the inevitability of its demise, were evident with an angry exchange of letters in the World's Fair around responsibilities. For many years the Fairground Society flourished without a publication, and used its column in the World's Fair to keep in touch with its membership. 'Fairground Society News' emerged as a printed sheet in 1979 with Harry Lee listed as president and David Braithwaite as chairman. After a few years these printed pages became the 'Jottings' under the tutelage of Ray Tunnicliff. In 1995, with issue 41, presentation was upgraded under the direction of Mark Waltham, and then changed once again with issue 50 and the editorial overview of long-established enthusiast Malcolm Slater. The Fairground Association of Great Britain (FAGB) was founded in 1977 with the aim of having a high standard publication at the centre of its operations, and its initial run as 'Century of Tobers' continued with the 'Fairground Mercury' under the direction of current editor Graham Downie. Its high standard of reproduction is matched by the Fairground Society's efforts, once again reinvigorated with their journal now renamed 'Platform' and ably put together by the team of Stephen Smith and Kevin Scrivens.

As an important sideline it is worth mentioning the magazine 'Three on the Floor' which commenced in 1972 and ran for 27 issues up until 1977. This was put together in part by the late John Carter, on the verge of forming his pivotal Steam Fair, and covered the different 'vintage' of fast Ford cars and Americana. John's input was evident with the magazine going on to feature fairground articles as John assembled his own collection of rides. In the mid 1990s Carter's Steam Fair would create its own dedicated fan-club and a smartly researched and published newsletter emerged for 7 issues.

Both the Fairground Society and the FAGB enjoy strong membership and sound editorial commitment to publish a quarterly magazine. Unlike their forebears the BFS and the FCSF both of these societies embrace a mix of vintage and contemporary approaches. The monitoring of what is happening here and now is paramount in forming the basis of historical research in years to come. The approach to documenting the modern fairground and theme park scene has been aided and accelerated by the internet phenomenon. Specialist fairground websites emerged in the 1990s and quickly adopted the communication and contribution facilities commonly associated with the general emergent architecture of the internet. This 'digital' approach dovetailed with the use of digital cameras, and forums emerged with heavy use of 'on the minute' pictures of new rides and current fairs. The democratic architecture of the internet creates its own problems, with issues around content-overload, ubiquity, unauthorised digital downloads and re-use, etc. Whilst nowhere near approaching the paralysing dictatorial nature that strangled the early fairground associations, it is only too evident that fairground websites require hard working moderators and procedures to allow rules, regulations and decisions to be made.